What The Eye Can’t See

There’s nothing better than a great view of a great race. Everyone can cheer and see where their money went. It’s what sells the industry to the public.

But for years now I have been squinting my eyes trying to make out what is going on in the back straights. It’s hard enough at the track, but much worse when you have to rely on film – either on SKY or from race videos – which is how 99% of people watch a race.

Three issues come into play: the environment, the dogs and the equipment. All pose problems. It’s easy enough when the dogs are right in front of you but far too difficult to tell what is going on once the distance increases. Here’s why.

1. Cameras, or camera work, are not good enough. Still photos are fine but as soon as the dogs start moving their images become blotchy. Telling them apart is not helped by long distances, low photo angles, or obstructions (such as the rail infrastructure, light poles or yahoos waving madly at the start). None of this happens for pictures of the gallops or the football, so a technical solution is obviously available.

2. Camera positions are often dependent on the nature of the building that houses them – high or low, further away or closer, in line with the finishing post or not. All these matters are more important to more people than any other purposes served by the building. Customer numbers demand that nothing should take precedence over the camera.

3. Track lighting varies considerably, night and day involves different visual perceptions, rainy weather makes all runners look much the same and, once again, long distances are a challenge.

4. The dogs’ rug colours do not work well – of which more below.

5. Generally, major city tracks perform better than provincial tracks, possibly partly because their cameras are positioned higher. Yet by far the majority of races are held at those provincial tracks, so they therefore dominate public impressions.

Rug colours were assessed a few years ago at when a long drawn-out process ended with the brown rug being changed to green and cloth giving way to synthetics – both sound enough moves. Apparently, nothing else was examined at the time, but it should have been.

Rug colours do vary a bit from country to country but they are broadly much of a muchness. However, they give the impression that they have all been chosen by a group of blokes spreading them out across a boardroom table. Theory has outweighed practice. That is, they are done mostly by amateurs with only a little help here and there from material manufacturers. Unfortunately, the challenge here is not to create a fashion statement but to achieve a result that works in varied and trying conditions. We are not after the right shoes to wear with a tuxedo but a workboot that satisfies a range of mucky conditions, so to speak.

The difficulty in separating runners at long distances is critical, of course, but the problem is not helped by the rug colours in use today. For example, Red and Pink are fine when they are put in front of you, but not in wild and woolly weather, and when the field is mixing. The same goes for Blue and Green.

More subtle is the job of telling apart the Black and White stripes, the White, the Black and the Green and White stripes when they are placed on dogs that might be coloured White, Black and White, or Black. Or even when they are not. It ends up as guesswork.

Broadcasters with powerful binoculars might handle the task, but how about ordinary viewers with a mixture of eye strength, short or long sight, varying colour sensitivity, or wearing glasses to boot?

The subject was dramatically illustrated last Tuesday while watching a 680m race at (R6). Arising (3) quickly ran to the lead in the front straight and then cleared out. But by the time they reached the back straight it had become impossible to see where the rest of them were at any stage. It was all a blur. And it did not improve a lot when they were bunching in the home straight. To tell the truth, the first half of 460m trips are no better, or not once they start moving.

By all means check the videos yourself, but it is only one example of many as many other tracks are no better. , for one, is an absolute horror. has huge light poles in the way. makes you go cross-eyed when racing in bright sunlight.

Cameras, lighting and photo angles are all matters which can be improved readily by technical people and by good management. But the question of rug colours is much more complex. Colour perception is a highly skilled science due to the varying interfaces of human eye properties, the equipment in use and the targets. The job is way beyond the reach of anyone except a true professional. As we have mentioned in respect to track design, nothing less than a full scientific study would be able to achieve an acceptable result.

As just another amateur, it is not for me to suggest a better range of colours. However, let’s note that Dayglo colours are in wide commercial use today and could do a remarkable job of distinguishing one dog from another. For example, a Dayglo Pink would immediately remove doubts about the Red/Pink clash.

Finally, a small but important point. A few clubs show still pictures of close finishes on SKY but most do not. This involves only a simple process of stringing up a bit of cable from one spot to another in the judge’s box so it should be made common practice everywhere. The customers love being their own judge.

Digressing a bit, here is some interesting information from “How Dogs See the World” by Natalie Wolchover on the Live Science website. It points out that it’s not the eyes that works things out, but the brain that deciphers the signals sent to it by the eyes.

“Normal human eyes contain three kinds of color-detecting cells called cones, and by comparing the way these cones are each stimulated by incoming light, our brains distinguish red wavelengths from green and blue wavelengths from yellow. Dogs’ eyes, like those of most other mammals, contain just two kinds of cones. These enable their brains to distinguish blue from yellow, but not red from green”.

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